An employee was made fun of for looking like fictional movie character Borat. Could he sue for national origin bias even though he wasn’t the same nationality as the film character?
Eric B. Meyer on The Employer Handbook pointed out the case out of Illinois and highlighted what made it different from other national origin bias cases:
He never directly complained
A Jordanian-born financial analyst worked for Abbott Molelcular, Inc., in Illinois.
While there, he claimed that two colleagues repeatedly called him “Borat,” in reference to the title character of a 2006 movie about a bumbling, rude fictional Kazakh journalist who visits the U.S. to make a documentary about American culture.
The two co-workers “told other employees that [the employee] was from Kazakhstan, poked fun at the similarity of [the worker]’s and Borat’s accent and appearance, and told [the staffer] that Americans ‘don’t do or think the way your people in Kazakhstan [do].'”
Of course, the employee is Jordanian and the fictional Borat is from Kazakhstan, but the harassers either didn’t know or didn’t care. The comments were made in an open cubicle area within earshot of upper management and HR, but no one took any action to stop the comments.
The worker never complained directly to anyone at the company, but he did repeatedly ask the harassers to stop, which they eventually did.
Mistaken national origin bias? Illegal
The employee still filed suit, claiming race and national origin bias — and the court let the case proceed to trial.
Meyer put it best on his blog as to why mistaken national origin discrimination can still be illegal:
[National origin bias] can still happen even if the Jordanian employee’s harassers didn’t know he was from Jordan. As the court noted, it is enough for a plaintiff to show that he was treated differently because of his foreign accent, appearance or physical characteristics.
And if the harassers knew that the Jordanian employee was from Jordan? The Borat comments could still tee up a race-discrimination claim if the harassers intentionally conflated Arab and Kazakh identities.
Read the case here.